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In her sun, in her soil, in her station, thrice blest,

With back turn’d to Britain, her face to the West,

Erin stands proudly insular, on her steep shore,

And strikes her high harp to the ocean’s deep roar.

--William Drennan, “Erin” (c. 1795)

Such a state of things loudly called for a prompt reform of the Government–a reform fully authorized by . . the violated rights of a country ... which nature has peculiarly favoured by its geographical and centrical position in the midst of the globe, by its vast ports and maritime stations, and by the natural riches of its soil.

–Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, “Manifesto of the Prince Regent of Brazil to Friendly Governments and Nations” (1822)

Recent discussions of nationalism and literature have focussed our attention on nation-formation as the production of a unified, sovereign group, whether the nation seeks to expand through imperialism or to reconstitute its integrity and autonomy through a resistance to empire. An important dimension of nationalist discourse in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, proceeded on the basis of establishing national merit in an international competition. In some approaches to this problem of international standing, the nation is not merely an “imagined community,” in Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase, but also an imaginative community. Hence US author William Ellery Channing remarks in 1830, “We are accustomed to estimate nations by their creative energies” (35), and writers defended their nations’ “creative energies” in the fields of literature and visual art.[1] Thomas Davis makes artistic success a spur to nationhood, praising the Repeal Association—so named for its central aim, the repeal of the Act of Union which had abolished the Irish Parliament in 1800—because the Association, “in offering prizes for pictures and sculptures of Irish historical subjects, has taken its proper place as the patron of nationality in art; and its rewards for Building Designs may promote the comfort and taste of the people, and the reputation of the country” (164). Others addressed the question of international reputation as one of natural merits. Poems such as James Clarence Mangan’s “The Lovely Land” and Denis Florence MacCarthy’s “A Walk by the Bay of Dublin” argue for the recognition of the Irish landscape as being as beautiful as the continental European landscapes canonized in classical literature and neoclassical painting.

While these poems extend arguments for the nation’s “creative energies” to the inspiring landscape, there were also arguments for national competitiveness, in similarly global terms, that were economic rather than aesthetic. In my epigraphs above, Irish poet William Drennan and Pedro I of Brazil both use the geographical value of their respective nations to undergird arguments for national sovereignty. Ireland, under British rule, and Brazil, under Portuguese rule, are “blest” (Drennan) and “favoured” (Pedro) by natural resources that make the nations economically viable. This is an important move that we might term “geopolitical” in its use of geographical features to underwrite political claims. It establishes a new kind of right to political autonomy distinct from two current ideas of sovereignty, both the older idea of the divine right of kings in which the sovereign has an inherent right to rule and the newer model of a popular nationalism in which the people are sovereign (whether that sovereignty is politically entrenched or only a general philosophical idea).[2] And it ties the nation and the people to the land on economic terms rather than through the determinisms of “national character” in which the people are identified with the land and its climate (a position refuted by David Hume in 1748 but current in nineteenth-century continental Europe through the work of such writers as J. G. Herder and Montesquieu).[3]Considerations on the Present State and Future Prospects of Ireland (1845), an English translation of a French essay by the Italian politician Count Cavour, accepts the legitimacy of past Irish grievances, but insists that Britain is a liberalizing power that functions as a globally stabilizing force and so must be protected from Irish disturbances that are only local in importance. In doing so, it counters emerging geopolitical arguments for national independence to render geopolitics the basis for containing national aspirations as merely local phenomena. Irish aspirations to national sovereignty are, in Considerations, insistently distinguished from, and represented as insignificant in relation to, a universal history in which the British Empire leads the globe towards modernity and liberalism. Cavour’s strategy is not typical by any means, but it does serve to register the ways in which universal history and geopolitics sanction opposing views of global relations and the foundations of sovereignty. My aim in this essay is first to situate the Considerations within a larger European political landscape in which nationalism was frequently understood in international context and geopolitics shifted with international treaty and political perspective. Then, I shall turn to the Considerations as a specific elaboration of the interdependence of the categories of geopolitics and universal history, of national and international, and of Ireland and Britain. Finally, I wish to offer a preliminary exploration of the ways in which geopolitics and universal history might be grasped as countervailing frameworks for addressing questions of nation and empire in nineteenth-century Europe, drawing particularly on William Drennan’s elaboration of what he termed, anticipating by over a century the 1904 coining of the term “geopolitics,” “the policy of geography.”

I. Some Historical Contexts: Ireland, the British Isles, Europe

Early-modern historians have debated the heuristic force of locating Ireland within the British Isles, within a transatlantic sphere, or within a larger Europe,[4] but these models often co-exist in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourse and are bound up with competing political conceptualizations of Ireland and shifting geopolitical concerns. The Act of Union, for instance, was widely discussed in terms of a union between individuals, particularly as a marriage or a pre-existing sororal relationship that the Act duly recognizes rather than forces. In a parliamentary speech on 23 January 1799, Richard Brinsley Sheridan moves awkwardly between these two tropes for Union: he represents Ireland as Britain’s “sister nation” (5: 36) and, with uncharacteristic rhetorical clumsiness, mingles sisterhood with the alternatives of rape or mutually consensual marriage in pleading, “Let me conjure you not to commit a violent rape on your sister Ireland; for you may, by well-timed overtures, get her as a comfort at your side, full of love, full of fidelity, and full of confidence” (5: 37). In his first Letter to the Right Honorable William Pitt (1799), addressing the current prime minister of Britain, Dublin physician, poet, and nationalist William Drennan, however, avoids allegory, instead drawing on geographical models. British-Irish relations, for Drennan, must be considered in the context of the British war with France and contemporary fears of an invasion of England. By 1799, Napoleon had already entered Milan, seized Malta from the British, and conquered Egypt. Drennan writes,

plans of the two great contending European powers ... are turned entirely into a military direction, and they are endeavouring, with rival celerity, to mold, or rather to hammer, whatever is malleable in surrounding countries, not into instruments of peace, but into weapons of war. No country so great as to be safe within the wind of this commotion, none so small as not to be instigated, seduced or terrified, into this perilous, but to them profitless, contest. France wishes to assimilate abroad. Britain hastens to consolidate at home. The strength which the one acquires by expansion, the other strives to get by consolidation, by compressing all its parts closer to a common centre, by making its own centre the centre of the whole system.

Letter 8

This is a suggestive model of European geopolitics: France is centrifugal while Britain is centripetal, and “surrounding countries” are the material on which these two forces act.[5] Hence, suggests Drennan, “This is the purpose of the Union--not to give speed to the plough, or add wings to the shuttle--but to concentrate the military force of the empire, and to organize the country so as best to favour the action of the military machine; to make an arsenal here, a post there, and an advanced redoubt of the whole island” (Letter 8-9). Ireland, in other words, is militarized in order to establish a battlefield that will draw off French forces and so protect Britain from invasion. Pitt, he argues, is “conscious that as France has got all by land, and England has all by sea, there is no point of contact for the contending powers, but at his own home, or here, resolves at all hazards it shall be here, if any where, and provisionally places the Irish nation in the hollow square of the British militia” (Letter 28).[6] In 1814, however, Waterloo dramatically changed the situation. France was no longer such a significant threat to British national security, and Ireland’s strategic importance to Britain’s military defense diminished accordingly.

This is not simply a matter of France’s defeat, but also of the impact of the treaty which followed. The standard historical reading is straightforward: the Congress of Vienna, with the task of forging a European treaty to restore the old order in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, reinstated the pre-Napoleonic empires, with some adjustments, often at France’s expense. This was seen in part as a way of quashing a rising “liberalism” in Europe that was fuelling movements for nationalism and democratizing reform. Britain itself made no territorial gains in Europe, but further established its naval power through the Congress, effectively developing part of the infrastructure necessary to build the Victorian empire. As Paul W. Schroeder has argued, the Congress of Vienna sandwiched three lesser empires–Prussia, Austria, and France–between the two most powerful empires, Britain and Russia (“Did” 686-87). As The Times put it in 1831, “The modern policy of Europe--that is to say, the policy suggested by a more comprehensive view of international interests, drawn from a more extended and matured experience than that of former ages--has had for its acknowledged object to maintain an equilibrium among the several Powers” (“How Long”). Pre-Waterloo, Ireland occupied a militarily strategic position, particularly, as Drennan suggests, during the Anglo-French conflicts in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power (not least attempted plans to land French forces in Ireland as part of a larger strategy against Britain). Post-Waterloo, Ireland was adjacent to a world power that was significantly more secure than it was in the 1790s when mutinies compromised national security, the American war was only recently over, and Napoleon was marching across Europe.[7] The Congress also re-entrenched Austrian power in Italy, leading Giuseppe Mazzini to found the Young Italy movement in the early 1830s and then to encourage its duplication in a range of other Young Europe movements. These “Young Europe” groups were nationalist in their privileging of language and territory, rather than empire or treaty, as the foundation of political identity. Young Italy launched failed uprisings in 1834 and 1844, and was then supplanted by the more successful Italian Risorgimento, which brought together Cavour, Mazzini, and Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Meanwhile, in 1840s Ireland, Young Ireland splintered from Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal movement to reverse the Act of Union, in part because of a difference over religion. The Young Irelanders were generally pan-sectarian and favoured liberal ideas of education, while O’Connell favoured Catholic state education.[8] Young Ireland was associated with The Nation newspaper, a weekly publication whose contributors included poets James Clarence Mangan, Thomas Davis, Speranza (later Lady Jane Wilde), Denis Florence MacCarthy and Thomas D’Arcy McGee. On 15 October 1842, its inaugural editorial, titled “The Nation,” made the newspaper’s nationalist aims clear: “our pages will be always open to fair discussion, we hope to reflect the popular mind, and gather the popular suffrage, within our columns upon this and all other questions of National politics.” Within months the newspaper enjoyed tremendous circulation, and R. F. Foster suggests that “the readership [of The Nation] was possibly 250,000 by 1843” (311). While focussed on Repeal, The Nation was also, from its first issue, concertedly international. In the 1840s, the newspaper regularly featured accounts of military engagements around the globe, including the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) and reports from the Irish diaspora, particularly in the United States. The literature of The Nation’s contributors in the 1840s and 1850s was similarly international in sweep, including alongside a large body of writing about Ireland such internationally focussed works as Jane Wilde’s Ugo Bassi: A Tale of the Italian Revolution, MacCarthy’s “Afghanistan,”[9] McGee’s poems about Irish migration to North America, Davis’s essay arguing for Prussia’s system of education as a model for Ireland, and Mangan’s influential German Anthology. Ireland was, however, notoriously rejected by Italian nationalists who did not view Ireland as a national cause qualified to join Young Poland, Young Italy, and Young Germany in Young Europe: without a language distinct from its oppressors’, Ireland was deemed ineligible to join the “Young” club even though “Young Ireland” stuck as a name for part of the Repeal movement and its writers continued to laud Italian nationalist activity.

In the early 1840s, against this backdrop of inter-European imperial competition while various national groups fought for political autonomy within Europe and debated the precise qualifications for nationhood, Cavour wrote an essay on Ireland’s Repeal movement, and particularly O’Connell’s branch of it. The essay, Considérations sur l'état actuel de l'Irlande et sur son avenir, was published in French in a Swiss periodical in 1843 and 1844 and then translated into English by the anonymous “A Friend to Ireland” and printed in London in 1845 as Considerations on the Present State and Future Prospects of Ireland. It was translated again in 1868 by William Ballantyne Hodgson, as Thoughts on Ireland: Its Present and Its Future.[10] The work is usually passed over briefly, if mentioned at all, in Cavour scholarship because it has little explicitly to do with Italy and pre-dates Cavour’s active period in the Risorgimento. Nicholas Mansergh summarizes the 1868 translation (89-95) and Harry W. Rudman hints at its political significance in the British Isles (274), joining a number of scholars who note that the essay “was quoted in the House of Commons and has twice been translated into English” (Whyte 291).[11] These two translations, however, had a decades-long impact in the British Isles on discussions of “the Irish question,” even being cited in a legal analysis of the financial ramifications of the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 (O’Connor 15-16).

But the striking timing of these two translations has not apparently been noted. The first translation appeared in 1845, in the wake of Carlyle’s Chartism (1839) where English unrest was attributed to misrule in Ireland[12] and as the Repeal movement gathered considerable momentum (meanwhile, beyond the British Isles, Britain was licking its wounds after a stunning military failure in Afghanistan and continental Europe teetered towards the Revolutions of 1848). The second translation appeared in 1868, just months after a fairly minor uprising in Ireland and agitation over the second Reform Bill but, more importantly, in the wake of a wide-ranging series of actions by Fenians that amounted to a transatlantic campaign against Britain.[13] The Fenians invaded Canada in 1866 and made two notorious attempts to release Irish prisoners in England: in September 1867, they attacked a police van carrying two men and, in December 1867, they bombed Clerkenwell prison in an attack in which a dozen bystanders were killed. In 1868, this international group of Irish nationalists was held responsible for the assassination of Nation poet and Irish-Canadian politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Hodgson explicitly invokes Fenianism as one of the spurs to his translation (while euphemistically referring to the Famine and the exodus from Ireland which it propelled as mere “emigration”): “in spite of a vast amount of emigration,--in spite of the National School system,--in spite of all legislative measures,--Irish discontent has, after another quarter of a century, burst forth in armed Fenianism” (ix). These two English translations of Cavour’s essay, then, appeared at times of rising tensions about Irish insurgency, British national security, and the viability of the empire. The English circulation of Cavour’s essay thus functions within larger attempts to quell both Irish nationalism and defend British ascendancy.

II. Cavour’s Considerations: From History to Geopolitics

All references here are to the 1845 translation, as my interest in this essay is the use of the translation as a volley in Repeal politics after the rise of The Nation and before the major crises of the late 1840s, particularly the Great Irish Famine.[14] This 138-page translation reviews the history of Irish grievances, the Repeal movement, economic ties between England and Ireland, and other factors related to the question of Ireland’s place in a Union with Britain in order to accept the errors of the past but argue ultimately that Ireland will gain much from political and economic ties with Britain. The translation is itself geopolitically positioned: “A Friend to Ireland” suggests, in a short preface, “The opinions of an intelligent foreigner on Irish affairs can never be a matter of indifference to this country” (iii). The European public, however, does not enjoy the same status granted to Cavour as an “intelligent foreigner,” and the translated text dismisses foreign opinion in general “on Irish affairs” (1-5). Hence, in the opening paragraphs of the 1845 translation, the European press is depicted as unbalanced, even sensationalist, in its reporting on Ireland’s Repeal movement:

The singular state of Ireland has attracted throughout Europe the attention of all who take any interest in politics.... The newspapers, those faithful interpreters of whatever is uppermost in the public mind, make Ireland one of their constant themes for discussion. Usually so laconic with respect to the affairs of England, they at once open their columns to the reports of the most insignificant meetings in favour of the Repeal of the Union; and we are regularly informed of the minutest details of the great trial which O’Connell and his associates are at present undergoing.


This interest is politically, but diversely, motivated:

It must be admitted, that public opinion on the Continent is not, in general, favourable to England.... From Petersburg to Madrid, in Germany as in Italy, the enemies of human progress, and the partizans of political revolutions, alike consider England as their most formidable adversary. The former charge her with being the focus whence all revolutions emanate—the certain refuge—the citadel, as it were, of propagandists and levellers. The latter, on the contrary, with more reason perhaps, look upon the English aristocracy as the cornerstone of the European social edifice, and as the greatest obstacle to their democratic views.


The translation is thus positioned as an attempt to reshape international debate on Ireland, framing “intelligent” responses as ones sympathetic to the current British administration while condemning as biassed or “unintelligent” responses that favour Irish independence: for instance, bias is clear in those “men who care the least for liberty and toleration [who] are heard every day exclaiming against English tyranny, and the melancholy lot of the Irish Catholics; whilst these same persons can find no word of pity for members of their own church in Poland, who are victims of the religious persecution of the Emperor of Prussia” (4). This lament is followed by the dire warning, “It is important to sift to the uttermost the real causes of this demonstration in favour of Ireland, for the purpose of guarding against the influence they may exert on the mode in which the events of that country and their probable consequences should be appreciated. Any mistake in this respect would be fatal” (5). The Considerations thus opens with the position that European support for Irish nationalism is misguided, hypocritical, and dangerous, while the essay as a whole works to inoculate Europe (from the politically neutral site of Switzerland) from such perilous opinions.

While my focus is the first English translation and its domestic circulation, it is important to note as well that Cavour is participating in an attempt to solicit international opinion in favour of Italian nationalist policy. Britain would eventually become instrumental in the establishment of a sovereign Italian state, and its Protestantism (as well as competition with other European empires) made it in some senses an inevitable ally because one of the main stumbling blocks to Italian unification and independence was the existence of the Papal States, an autonomous region governed by the Pope in virtually monarchical terms (there was, for instance, no constitution until the Pope issued one in early 1848 in response to rising political agitation from nationalists and republicans). In the face of nationalist-republican insurgency, including the assassination of his Prime Minister, the Pope was forced to flee Rome in disguise in late 1848, and only returned in 1850 with French military support. If Catholic nations were to be expected to support the Pope’s territorial claims in Italy, it is not too surprising that the nationalists were reaching out to the most powerful non-Catholic Empire in Europe--Britain. Moreover, while we are wont to paint the evils of the British Empire, it is salutary to recall that other European empires, including Russia and Austria, were more directly repressive, at least against their own citizens, than the British government. Depicting the British government as the vanguard of Western liberalism, then, made some sense, even though historians have represented Cavour in particular, and the Risorgimento leadership in general, as “anglophile.”[15] They have also noted, in relation to the Considerations, “the popular belief that [Cavour] was more interested in money-making and in business for its own sake than in the cause of national freedom” (Whyte 292). But the specifics of Italy’s situation and British politics suggest strategic reasons for an alignment with British interests to foster British support. Indeed, Britain would prove a valuable ally. Britain provided important military support in the months leading up to Italian unification in 1861, including a naval escort for Garibaldi’s troops in 1860 as they moved from Sicily to the Italian mainland. In other words, Cavour’s essay and its translation are geopolitical in context as well as in content: the Considerations solicits international support for British and Italian domestic aims as the global arrangements, and reactionary politics, consolidated by the Congress of Vienna began to crumble.

The “Friend to Ireland” who translated Cavour’s essay into English is less concerned, in the Preface and notes, with the Italian problem than with taking domestic advantage of Cavour’s argument for Britain as a liberal power that functions as a globally stabilizing force. Acknowledging the violence of British rule in the past, the translated essay proposes that slow and cautious reform is the best solution to Ireland’s social and economic ills and that such reform is only possible under the supervision of an 1840s British government that is, unlike its less enlightened predecessors, liberal and orderly. It locates Britain’s political leadership in a progressive trajectory that decisively separates the present from the past:

In reviewing the history of so much misery and of such long-continued oppression, one is involuntarily led to pass a severe judgement upon the nation which has been, if not the author of it, at least its accomplice, and to call them to account even in these later times for the barbarity of which their fathers were guilty.... When, however, the generous emotions of indignation are tempered by the calm judgement of reason, one is forced to admit that the English, from the time of William III. and of Queen Anne, are not so culpable as they would appear to us, judging them as we now do with the superior light of the nineteenth century. In persecuting the Catholics, in heaping on their heads vexation after vexation, for the purpose of rendering the exercise of their religion humiliating and difficult, the politicians of those times were not conscious of the crime they were committing against mankind. They did no more than follow opinions of their day; they applied with rigorous fidelity the doctrines of intolerance, which at that time in Europe no one dared openly to dispute.


Progress is now accomplished: “If we compare the effect these cruelties and persecutions produce on us, the offspring of the nineteenth century, with the effect produced by them on the most enlightened and civilised men of the preceding age, we cannot withhold our meed of praise for the great progress which has been going on in the moral judgements of the world” (14). Strangely echoing Protestant jeremiads, the Considerations then transfers guilt for Ireland’s condition from Britain to a Providence that is using Ireland to move the world forward:

Providence did not permit that these salutary measures should take place at that time. She destined Ireland to become, after a long course of misery, a never-failing source of anxiety and trouble to her oppressors; for the purpose, as it should seem, of furnishing a great lesson to the world, and teaching nations, however powerful, that the crimes and errors which they commit will, sooner or later, recoil on themselves.


Throughout the first sections of the essay, British wrongs and Irish “misery” are acknowledged only to be set aside for and by universal history—as here, where Britain makes great strides forward while Ireland remains subordinate both to Britain and to a guiding hand that uses it as “a great lesson to the world.”

Conversely, O’Connell, Irish member of parliament and leader of the movement that achieved Catholic Emancipation in 1829, is synecdochally collapsed with the entire Repeal movement and nationalist leadership in Ireland, and he is represented as too mercurial to supervise the complex process of wide-ranging reform. O’Connell is represented as changing his politics from one moment to the next:

in the midst of these apparent contradictions, perfect consistency is observable in O’Connell’s views. Employing a thousand different means which he knows how to multiply, and vary to infinity according to the exigencies of the moment, he ever follows the same objects,—the political restoration of his co-religionists and of his country. Out of consideration for the consistency of his principle of action, history will forgive his repeated changes, and the very opposite judgements he has passed on the same measure and the same men.


If, however, the Irish were to follow the liberal (and, so, implicitly post-sectarian) British instead of the Catholic-focussed O’Connell, as well as accept the claim that reform is necessarily slow, progress would be within their grasp:

The peaceable and orderly conduct of the Irish ever since the formation of the Melbourne ministry, bears ample testimony to the progress which that people has made in the path of true civilisation. Government had only to evince its good intentions towards them, and to show that their convictions would be respected, and their national feelings not offended, for that same people, so turbulent and so restive, to evince at once respect for the laws, and endure with patience those evils of its social condition to which it is not in human power to apply an instant remedy.


This is either a canny or a disingenuous move. By focussing on O’Connell and averting its gaze from other nationalist organizations such as Young Ireland, the translation can represent the Repeal movement as parochial rather than liberal, as the agenda of the “Catholic party” and not of the Irish people as a nation. The threat of a disenfranchised Anglo-Irish Protestant minority hovers on the edges of the Considerations’ argument: “It is evident that if Repeal took place, it would be due to the successful efforts of the popular and Catholic party, and consequently that the first independent legislature would be almost exclusively composed of members of that party” (90). The Considerations is no flat-footed piece of propaganda, but it nevertheless relies rhetorically on the view that O’Connell, the Catholic party, and insurgents in general are inconsistent, dithering, and short-sighted, unable to see the grand march of history in which Britain leads and Ireland may follow.

While maintaining this universal history as the only means of social progress as well as the arbiter of which political struggles are significant, the essay also situates Ireland and England, as a synecdoche for Britain, within three geopolitical arenas and historically located epochs. First, Ireland and Britain together form a colonial binary in which Ireland is clearly the past victim of an unconscionable (and even incompetent) brutal regime—but that is firmly in the past. Second, in the present, Ireland and Britain within Europe are entangled in European views of Britain: as the flagship of a liberalism that balances democracy with aristocracy, the essay suggests, Britain draws the ire of both conservatives and radicals on the continent, who thus join together as well in their support of the Irish nationalist cause because Irish agitation challenges the efficacy and power of British liberal moderation. Third, Britain is an imperial power whose “foreign affairs ... are numerous, important, and complicated” (83), making it important to a global future, whereas Ireland is insignificant in this sphere. Thus, the translation of Cavour’s essay supports British interests by discounting European support for Irish nationalism and making the empire itself the paramount concern of the international community because of its role in global stability and liberal progress. The only means, it insists, of achieving Irish independence is through an insurrection after “an unsuccessful foreign war, exhausting the resources of England.... If Repeal were purchased at the price of the humiliation of England, it would cost too much to the cause of humanity; and no one who is sincere would have it on such terms” (141). In Considerations, Britain is the liberal gear that will drive world history forward.

Yet, to accomplish this move, Britain’s gear needs to be freed of the brake that threatens to grind it to a halt—Ireland. Hence, the essay grasps the relationship between Britain and Ireland in myriad terms in which it is consistently to Ireland’s civil and economic benefit to accept British rule. For instance, Cavour both calculates Ireland’s share of Britain’s national debt and surveys the brutality of English colonial domination before 1800, while apologizing for it as an effect of a barbarity that the British have now transcended. Geographically, however, the focus is precise. Repeatedly the essay invokes St. George’s Channel, the body of water that separates the south of Ireland from Wales and links the Irish Sea to the Atlantic. The channel is a geographical feature that both registers and facilitates political relations. Early in the essay, for instance, Ireland’s resistance to conquest is geographically situated:

powerful Norman barons, whose sway had extended throughout England, and who had obliterated even the shadow of Saxon nationality, were unable to establish their authority upon the same foundation on the other side of St. George’s Channel. The vast bogs with which Ireland was covered, its extensive heaths which stretch towards the west, especially in Connaught, offered for ages a safe refuge to the unsubdued Celts, and enabled them to preserve, at the price of poverty and every kind of suffering, a savage independence.


Ireland is thus not only geographically divided but also geographically distinctive from Britain, so distinctive that it cannot be assimilated politically. And, as in so much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writing about Ireland, the bog is a symbol of both recalcitrance and barbarity—just as the bog cannot be transformed into arable land, so “the unsubdued Celts” will not be absorbed into a productive social order.

Later in the essay, Pitt is represented as the brave diplomat who sought to elide the channel in the unification of the islands through the Act of Union: “The end which Pitt had in view was great and noble. In uniting under the same government the two islands, separated by St. George’s Channel, he hoped to strengthen and consolidate British power, which was, at that time, the butt of formidable attacks” (25). St. George’s Channel is now a hurdle to be overleaped in the fortification of the islands against France. This is the very argument upon which Drennan builds—indeed, both Drennan and the “Friend to Ireland” use the word “consolidate” to describe the strategic impetus behind the Act of Union (Letter 8; Considerations 25). Later, in outlining the benefits to Ireland of continuing participation in, rather than separation from, a unified British Isles, the Considerations suggests that

Some persons may, perhaps, think that by adopting a system of protection, and closing its ports to England, several branches of manufactures might be able to flourish in Ireland. But this is absurd. A custom-house war between two islands separated by St. George’s Channel would be fatal to both, although England would suffer much the least of the two. Ireland, from its essentially agricultural character, finds in Great Britain the most favourable outlet for its produce.


Ireland is represented as a merely agricultural nation and its neighbour as a fully fledged commercial state, following not only the “four stages theory”[16] in which societies progress from hunting, to herding, to farming, and finally to commerce, but also what Adam Smith defined as the relationship between town and country: “The great commerce of every civilized society, is that carried on between the inhabitants of the town and those of the country” in which surplus raw materials flow to the town, and “a part of the manufactured produce” flows to the country (407). Ireland is rendered both backward (agricultural rather than commercial) and provincial, as the rural adjunct of a fully commercialized Britain. Ireland is thus inevitably economically reliant on its more advanced neighbour, and the reinstatement of St. George’s Channel as a boundary for taxation will forestall Ireland’s economic advancement out of the agricultural stage.[17] So, in these three moves, spread across over ninety pages of a substantial essay, the Considerations establishes Ireland’s geographical distinctness from Britain, the importance to British security of politically absorbing a (pacified) Ireland,[18] and Ireland’s economic reliance on continuing trade with Britain across St. George’s Channel. While the first might seem at odds with the other two in establishing a separation instead of a basis for close communication, it is in fact essential: geographical distinctness defines Ireland as an agricultural nation and hence politically backward, providing the preconditions for both its economic reliance on Britain and its political short-sightedness. Britain offers Ireland what it offers the world—access to modernity. Without it, all Ireland can hope for is “savage independence.”

The final reference to St. George’s Channel is especially resonant. The Considerations suggests that Ireland’s transatlantic position makes it an ideal focal point for the global network emerging through the Victorian British empire:

railroads would bestow great commercial importance upon Ireland. If one of those miraculous means of communication traversed the island from east to west, and placed St. George’s Channel in immediate communication with the western coast, washed by the Atlantic, ... Ireland would become, as a matter of necessity, the high road between the two hemispheres, and its future prospects would be glorious. The consequences arising from such an undertaking would be incalculable, not only for her, but for the whole world.


Considerations erases both Irish sovereignty and Irish land at once. The “miraculous” “railroads” can place “St. George’s Channel in immediate communication with the western coast, washed by the Atlantic”: Ireland, not even rhetorically the possessor of this “western coast,” disappears with the speed of modern technology. It has no ports, no cities, no national infrastructure—it is only a space to be traversed by the rails.[19] Technology thus creates the moment in which Ireland’s position on the cusp of the transatlantic space as well as the periphery of the British metropole can be turned to considerable economic advantage as well as make Ireland at last significant on the world stage as a tool of British empire. No longer just drawing off French forces from the English countryside, as in the 1790s, Ireland is now imagined as a means of increasing the speed and profitability of imperial trade. No longer subordinated as a part of the transatlantic colonial sphere, it is now in a unique geographical position to take advantage of its peripheral position in relation to the British Isles and so become “commercially importan[t]” rather than a merely agricultural state dependent on a commercial neighbour. But in outlining this hopeful future, the Considerations virtually elides Ireland as a geographical entity with “sun” and “soil,” mountains and rivers, transforming Ireland into a simple extension of St. George’s Channel—the transport interface between Britain and its empire.

III. Geopolitics vs. Universal History: From Drennan to Cavour

I have been using the term “geopolitical” somewhat anachronistically here, as the term “geopolitical” was first coined in 1904 and theorized by such turn-of-the-century thinkers as Sir Halford John Mackinder. Christopher GoGwilt suggests that geopolitics emerges from a break with “nineteenth-century ideas of culture” (3), but similar concepts were in play from at least the late eighteenth century forward, particularly in geographical complications of universal history.[20] GoGwilt’s view of nineteenth-century “cosmopolitical” discourse (which he opposes to the “geopolitical”) is tacitly rooted in universal history: “the European hypothesis of culture as cosmopolitan” is “Conceived in terms of the educational idea of ‘Bildung,’ with its cosmopolitan narrative imperative to unfold the individual’s story in harmony with the development of human history as a whole” (5). This “educational idea” has been differently positioned, however, by David Lloyd: for him, “the term ‘culture’” “impl[ies] its relationship to a general idealist conception of aesthetics and of aesthetic education or Bildung: aesthetic culture is not to be understood merely as the cultivation of a taste for the beautiful, but as invoking a concept of man in general as producer of form.... That is to say, aesthetics posits the universal formal identity of the human” (6). This framing of “aesthetic education” facilitates Lloyd’s analysis of the ways in which such theories of culture were used to reinforce the value of the metropole within a universal history in which the colonial subject is always trailing behind:

Predicated on the notion of universality, this aesthetic both legitimates and transmits the ethnocentric ideology of imperialism. In its very postulation of an eventual reassimilation of the racial or sexual other through historical development, the canon of culture permits and enacts the exclusion of that other as being a not yet fully realized form of humanity. Culture, moreover, gives the law for the form in which that humanity must—always asymptotically—approach realization.


While GoGwilt, focusing on the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, makes an interesting case for a discursive shift from a temporal view of world relations—the Bildung of the individual and “the development of human history as a whole” (5)—to a spatial model in which geography, rather than history, is the key explanatory discipline, it is suggestive that Lloyd argues for resistance to the Bildung model taking place through a “refusal to constitute the narrative as productive” (21) and offers as an example a character who is a “land surveyor” (21). Both Lloyd and GoGwilt oppose the spatial (and local) and the temporal (and universal) even though they diametrically disagree on the value of one over the other. Drawing on Lloyd, who moves from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries in this argument, we can conceive of geopolitics not only as a conservative nationalist attempt in the early twentieth century to scientifically reinforce European hegemony, as GoGwilt suggests (23-24), but also as part of an older, ideologically varied reaction against hegemonic ideas of universal history—an anti-imperial geopolitics.

Geopolitics, particularly as a means of insisting on the effects of the local (who borders who, where the ports are, the distribution of arable lands),[21] provides the materials for a challenge to the universalisms that reinforce imperial hegemony. The universal subject parallels universal history in annihilating the difference on which more local claims can be asserted, or, in the vivid words of The Nation in 1843,

They would attach to the physiognomy of nations the mask of a slavish uniformity, lest the brotherhood of freemen should recognise their kin—lest we should remember that Italians cannot be Germans, Flemings Dutch, nor Celts Saxons. They would drive the ponderous rolling-stone, as it were, over the different families of man, to render more facile their own regal tread over prostrate human nature.

“National Character”

The category of the “cosmopolitan” invoked by GoGwilt is founded upon an elision of geographical distinctions to imagine a uniform world through which the universal imperial subject moves and develops in the Bildung discussed by both GoGwilt and Lloyd. Consider, for instance, James Howell’s “The Vote, Or Poem Royal” appended to his Epistolae Ho-elianae: Familiar Letters, Domestick and Foreign (1645-1655), republished throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:

Earth is our common Mother, every ground

May be one’s Country, for by birth each man

Is in this world a Cosmopolitan,

A free-born Burgess.


Written by an Oxford-educated English Royalist imprisoned by a Parliament asserting its constitutional rights, this passage defines the individual’s sovereignty on terms that not only anticipate John Locke by a few decades but concomitantly rely upon the non-specificity of the world of which this subject is a citizen. There are no borders, indigenous populations, rivers, mountains, or deserts in Howell’s “every ground.” It is a space that is defined through the cosmopolitan’s freedom to move—just as Ireland is defined at the end of the Considerations in terms of the freedom of England’s trains to move across it.[22] Conversely, The Citizen of the World, first published serially in 1760-1761 by Irish author Oliver Goldsmith, troubles such a cosmopolitanism by making its “Citizen of the World,” Lien Chi, neither universal nor free: Lien Chi is rendered culturally specific through the emphasis on his Chinese nationality, and his incomprehensiblity to the English orientalists he meets, and he is subject to tyranny at home and abuse in England.[23] By attending to the specificities of place, geopolitics as such provides a different view of geography in relation to politics than is possible with postcolonial ideas of alterity, as in Simon Gikandi’s useful Maps of Englishness, or more ethnographic views in which place serves as a metonym for cultural, historical or social differences, as in, for instance, treatments of Victorian London from Peter Stallybrass and Allon White forward to Simon Joyce. The ambivalence of the prefix “geo” (Greek for “earth”) allows geopolitics to tie together two concepts—geography as a source of politics and politics as a global dynamic—while retaining the materiality of geography as a discipline concerned with natural resources and local particulars as well as spatial relationships.

Long before the word “geopolitical” was coined in 1904, Drennan used the term “the policy of geography” to grasp such concerns. In his first Letter, Drennan argues against the Act of Union, suggesting, “if the cruel alternative be proposed to me, unite for ever with England, or separate for ever, I would say—separate, in the name of God and nature. If such be the alternative, let no little pert pre-eminence say to me, ‘look at the map,’ and attempt to reconcile the perfidy of policy to the policy of geography” (44). The “policy of geography,” for Drennan, leads to cooperation among independent nations rather than domination:

The true system of the world was long a paradox to philosophers as well as to the people, and when the Genoese pilot, in pursuit of the East Indies, steered due west, he steered most paradoxically, but, while he was losing one world, he made another. I will venture the paradox, and, steering due west, I will assert that the interest of Britain lies in the real and absolute independence of Ireland, on the immediate renunciation of all governmental connexion, a just compensation for past treatment, but also the truest wisdom, by securing our friendship in a solitary world. The stranger, the foreigner, the supposed foe would then become fellow countrymen and fellow citizens and brothers; and our greater population and capacity to purchase would produce to Britain a better market, (to her supreme felicity,) for there is not a country, which grows and increases, that does not, in its collateral consequences, augment the industry of the whole world.

Letter 44-45

As independent nations in a “solitary world,” Ireland and Britain shall, with all other nations, benefit with “the whole world.” Drennan invokes the French Revolutionary principles of liberté (“absolute independence”) and fraternité (“fellow citizens and brothers”) through an equality between Britain and Ireland that facilitates economic ties. He argues similarly in his Second Letter to the Right Honorable William Pitt (1799) that “nature designed” Ireland to be “a Free Port for the world” (36). Instead of “citizens of the world,” they are “fellow citizens,” defined socially and through trade rather than as sovereign subjects roving through an undifferentiated global space. Drennan imagines an international body that would regulate and protect the independence of the world’s nations on such relational terms:

I do assert that the great perfection of this sublunary system would be such a law of nations, recognized and supported, as might cover the universality of independent countries, fulfilling their duties and asserting their rights, with its tutelary authority, defending the weakest from the most ambitious, and guaranteeing to all the full possession of their independence, under the aegis of a common power.[24]

Letter 46

Such a “policy of geography” moves us away from the binaries of metropole/periphery, east/west, first-world/third-world that are tacitly organized by the narrative pull of universal history. Instead, Drennan argues strenuously (and at length) for the value of a “universality” that protects individuality and autonomy at the level of the national, setting aside the ideal of the free Enlightenment subject who roams at will over the globe and so can function as an imperial agent while also redefining a universality that has room for the colonized in ways that the discourse analyzed by Lloyd does not.

While geopolitics offered writers such as Drennan a framework within which to imagine international relations outside of a universal history that reifies metropolitan values, Cavour’s essay reveals the ways in which a localized geopolitics could also serve the interests of the metropole under another guise. The Considerations uses geopolitics locally and universal history globally. The essentializing, even fascist, impetus that GoGwilt finds in twentieth-century geopolitics is deployed to render Irish concerns local and particular, “minor” in Lloyd’s terms, while Britain remains both universal and geographically diffused over an undefined empire and a generalized “globe.” Or, put another way, Ireland is rendered provincial while Britain is imagined as cosmopolitan—“Earth is our common Mother, every ground / May be one’s Country”—and so as rising above local interests that are expressed through the international realm where law, treaty, and geography must be addressed. Nineteenth-century geopolitics could function, as in Drennan’s writing, to support the local and the national against the universalizing and the imperial by using the materials of geography to contest the idealized abstractions of “aesthetic education” and universal history. Cavour’s Considerations, implicitly soliciting both British support in the rising European crisis over Italy and continental support for Britain as a liberalizing player on the world stage, meets this local politics on its own ground in order to set it aside and hence reinstate, on securer terms, a universal history centered on London. The Considerations thus reveals the ways in which universal history and geopolitics, though theoretically opposed, could make strange bedfellows in the pursuit of a pragmatic policy of buttressing British imperial power in order to challenge more reactionary European regimes.